The red panda is a curious beast, as a matter of fact, the only living member of its taxonomic family Ailuridae. Although, as the name suggests, this panda is most definitely red, with dark ruddy brown fur, it is only distantly related to its better-known namesake, the giant panda.
Red pandas are much smaller than giant pandas and are overall closer to skunks and raccoons, only a bit more robust with a round head and short snout which gives them a resemblance to a small bear. They may look bigger on pictures, but red pandas are actually as big as a smaller dog breed, weighting only between 8 to 17 pounds (3.6 to 7.7 kilograms).
These adorable little mammals have quite a thick fur and long, bushy tails which help them keep their balance when climbing up tall silver fir trees in Asia’s high temperate forests of Himalaya. The environment where they live is cold and can be rather harsh with strong wind at times, luckily, red pandas are well adapted to live in these conditions.
They are amazing climbers, getting high to treetops in winter to bath in a scarce sun, hiding from predators, or searching for food. These skilled climbers prefer Himalayan silver fir tree, hemlocks and rhododendron plants to rest in. Red pandas are active during the dawn and dusk.
Where and how do red pandas live?
The small arboreal mammal is native to the Eastern Himalayas and south-western China, roaming through the high forests of India, eastern Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar in a quiet manner and solitude. They live in a high altitude ranging from 2,500 to 4,500 meters above sea level (8,200 to 15,000 feet above sea level) in mixed broad leaf forests with bamboo-thicket understory. According to observation, pandas never roam too far from running water and prefer to climb trees on steeper slopes.
Red pandas are carnivores, their digestive tract is of a carnivore, but despite that their diet consists of 95 percent of bamboo. They even got a modified wrist bone into a pseudo-thumb to be able to grab bamboo to feed easier. This feature is present at giant pandas as well. Red pandas feed off bamboo leaves and shoots, fruit, acorns, lichens, insects and occasionally small lizards and bird eggs .
Overall, it seems that red pandas do not share many similarities with giant pandas, but sadly there is one more thing they have in common. Another thing red panda does share with the giant panda is the sad fact that this adorable little animal is facing extinction.
Red panda endangerment status: Endangered, decreasing populations, according to estimates less than 10,000 mature animals.
Why are red pandas endangered?
Red pandas are solitary animals that seek their home in a safe distance from other members of their species. Their populations are scattered in the mountainous forested areas and are not easy to track. That is also a reason why we are lacking an estimate of their final number in wild.
However, based on the recent monitoring and a new assessment for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 2015, their numbers are constantly decreasing, and they have a status of an endangered species .
Despite the fact that the animal is protected by legislation such as the Wild Animal Protection Law in China, Bhutan, Nepal and the Wildlife Act of 1994 in Myanmar, populations are becoming increasingly fragmented, mainly due to the impact of two factors: poaching and habitat loss .
Accelerating the effects of these actions is the fact that red pandas have a naturally low birth rate, usually only giving birth to one or two pups a year, and a high natural death rate . IUCN estimates put the global population at around 10,000 and predicts a continuing decline of at least 10 percent over the next decades.
Logging and loss of habitat to other land use
Throughout their range, red pandas are experiencing a dramatic loss of habitat, mainly due to commercial logging, firewood demand, livestock grazing and land clearing for the sake of human habitation . When forests are cut down, pandas are not able to find a safe shelter and suitable conditions to survive in the area. They have to move to a new territory and are exposed to a significant stress and risk of being killed by accident or intentionally by people or predators.
Red pandas could be considered an indicator species of a healthy environment with biodiverse forest growth and presence of clean water. This only further suggests how important is natural habitat in its specific integrity to their life. Any changes can trigger the vicious cycle of the decimation of their populations.
Although large areas within the red panda’s range are protected, such as in Nepal where 20 percent of the land is designated as protected area, or in Bhutan it is even higher – 46 percent, in China 65 percent are protected lands, the problem is that some of the animal’s habitat falls outside these zones, leaving them vulnerable .
Additionally, even within the protected areas, pandas are not entirely safe. In most countries, there is a development and human encroachment happening on a daily basis. Pandas are either losing their habitat to other land use practices or the remaining habitat degrades and becomes fragmented, making it harder for these shy creatures to thrive.
Every animal needs certain area size to do well, to find enough food, to be able to protect itself from predators, to mate with a suitable partner, to raise healthy offspring. When habitat becomes fragmented, this suitable range for life shrinks for many individual animals. They lose safe and healthy options of food sources and shelter. They lose the possibility to search for new mate and may experience the problem of inbreeding and shrinking genetic diversity which leads to higher probability of producing sick babies that will not be able to procreate and keep the species alive in decades to come.
Life in mountainous areas, in fact, in some of the wildest areas in the world, in Himalayas, takes its toll when natural disasters strike. Unfortunately, wildlife, including red pandas, is often overlooked when it comes to dealing with the consequences of changing climate and unusually fierce weather.
The home range of pandas are areas that are exposed to seasonal cyclones that can trigger landslides and floods, ruining their native habitat. Forest fires are also becoming more frequent in recent years. Natural disasters are just another factor that destroys their habitat like suitable trees for shelter and bamboo undergrowth.
Loss of bamboo
The animal’s reliance on bamboo as a food source is also a contributing factor to its falling numbers. Its preferred bamboo has a peculiar biology which means it only grows well in certain high-altitude conditions . As climate change alters optimum bamboo growing conditions and makes it harder to survive, so too does the panda suffer, as it has no alternative to turn to.
Climate change is not the only factor that affects bamboo availability. In some periods of time, bamboo plants, which are classified as perennial grasses that reproduce vegetatively, mysteriously start flowering (the cause of it is not yet known to scientists). Some bamboos flower only once in 50 to 100 years. It is a rare event. The problem is that when this happens, all the bamboo plants flower synchronously and then die out, which leads to sudden shortage of staple food for red and giant pandas alike.
Human encroachment means the removal of bamboo as well, when the newly claimed land is cleared of forest and bamboo to make space for roads, cattle pastures or new settlements.
Why are red pandas hunted?
The other main threat to red pandas is poaching, as they are much sought after for their handsome fur, particularly in certain Chinese provinces, where it is much valued by newlyweds as a symbol of a happy marriage .
WWF has also reported finding red panda fur caps for sale in Bhutan. These innocent animals are also often caught in traps intended for other wildlife, such as wild pigs, deer or other animals hunted.
Newly built human settlements and cattle herds are often guarded by dogs that accompany people. Dogs pose threat to a small animal like red panda. They hunt pandas down and kill them or injure them. In other cases, unvaccinated dogs may carry canine distemper. Distemper is a viral infectious disease which proves lethal to red pandas, dogs and other susceptible wildlife. The disease is as serious as rabies and the only way to prevent its spreading is vaccination. Unfortunately, in many hardly accessible mountain communities, many dogs still go about with the vaccination and spread the disease to other animals.
Although red pandas are elusive in the wild, being largely solitary and secretive, they are not aggressive animals and possess little in the way of defenses, making them easy targets for determined hunters. This unfortunately contributes heavily to their decline.
Cases of red pandas being sold as rare pets on the black market have been reported with increasing frequency. They are valued for their unique looks and a size of a bigger cat, making them seemingly attractive for a cute pet. What is not considered by the smugglers is that they are actually quite demanding in terms of feeding requirements. They need large amounts of bamboo every day. Not even mentioning their need of plenty of movement in tree canopies. Wild animals do not belong to the cage or to someone’s home.
What would happen if the red panda went extinct?
While the red panda might not be quite so charismatic as the giant panda, there is no denying that the loss of this charming and innocent animal would be just as sad. While zoos are attempting to do their part to ensure their continued existence, through captive breeding programs within a Global Species Management Plan, they are also contributing to the problem of the animal’s continued decline, as the rate of successful breeding in captivity is low.
Furthermore, animals raised in captivity and then released in wild are from a high percentage unsuccessful in finding a mate and having cubs on their own.
Although numbers of captured specimens sold to zoos have decreased, the process still exists, while demand among private collectors is also high . It’s clear that interest in protecting the red panda is high but the question remains, will it be enough?
If a species like the red panda went extinct, the delicate balance of keeping a healthy biodiversity in their habitats – high temperate forests, would be tipped off. Red pandas have their place in the food chain. They keep the bamboo growth in check, not allowing it to overgrow and become an invasive species, pushing other plants and animals or other living organisms dependent upon them away.
Their role in the mountainous forest ecosystem is unique, since they are well adapted to such a harsh environment, helping to manage ecosystem resources in their own way. If you removed them, the absence of their foraging activity and movement through the landscape, could have an effect on the vegetation and other wildlife – allowing some species to become too overabundant and suppressing other.
Local communities that have been living in harmony with wildlife of Himalaya and is determined to protect the animals that have been sharing with them the hardships of life in the mountains, consider red pandas important. They bring good luck and indicate healthy ecosystem, which can provide resources that are managed and utilized in a gentle way according to ancient tradition. These communities care for the species conservation and are trying to do what they can to revert their decline.